NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Christopher Lowell is now one of the most recognizable personalities in home design, thanks to his former TV series for the Discovery Channel, "The Christopher Lowell Show," and his eponymous product lines for Office Depot and Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts. But just over a decade ago, the male Martha Stewart was an ad executive, helping to develop Biolage shampoo for Ohio-based salon company Matrix, among other products.
"People used to hire me because I understood all the components of the business and felt there was a huge disconnect between all the departments," he said of his days at the helm of his own production/marketing agency, Visual Marketing. "I was kind of one of the first people to bridge the gap between creative director and art director and account brand director."
While working for years to help companies such as Revlon and Paul Mitchell expand their brands, Mr. Lowell learned a lot about reaching women authentically, which often meant working outside the confines of traditional ad models. "The 30-second commercial is such a microcosm. You can't tell a full story in 30 seconds," he said. "I decided I had a lot of corporate fatigue and wanted to get into the message I really believed in: the power of personal creativity. I felt people were saturated by the media, especially the entertainment media, and confused talent with innate creativity."
Design and lifestyle show
Mr. Lowell eventually set up a studio near Matrix's headquarters in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to film his own version of a design and lifestyle show that would offer a different take than the likes of Bob Vila and Martha Stewart. "We wanted something that was designed to keep you on budget but keep you out of the emotionally overwhelming task of doing everything yourself," he said.
In the ensuing years, Mr. Lowell has played the dual role of TV host and businessman. "The Christopher Lowell Show" aired for nearly 10 years on the Discovery Channel, where it was the network's highest-rated show in daytime. After ending his run with Discovery in 2007, Mr. Lowell made a return to TV in July on Scripps' Fine Living Network, where he hosts "Work That Room." During his run on Discovery, Mr. Lowell launched a series of collections at retail, which recently logged a collective $1 billion in sales over 10 years. He recently renewed his partnership with Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts to sell his books, drapery, hardware and fabric at Jo-Ann's 760 stores nationwide. There's also Christopher Lowell Furniture Collections, a line he launched at Office Depot and will take to DirectBuy starting in January through a new deal with Klaussner Furniture.
Dan Levin, Mr. Lowell's business partner of the past 15 years and founder of Associated Talent Management, said Mr. Lowell has been able to quietly create a sustainable brand because of his unique combination of marketing expertise and emphasis on affordability. "With other personalities who've written books or had TV shows, it was about having expertise. But just because you have expertise in something, that doesn't make you a brand," he said. "The brand is the fact that you've been able to develop successful product lines, stay in the game but also grow. As more people become aware of Christopher, they understand the value that Christopher brings. When you buy a Christopher Lowell product, you know it's a good product but also good value."
Madison & Vine recently spoke with Mr. Lowell about his return to TV, lessons he learned from his days in the ad industry and his predictions for the troubled housing market.
Madison & Vine: How did your experience in product development for companies such as Matrix, Revlon and Paul Mitchell inform the marketing strategy for your own product lines?
Mr. Lowell: One of the things we're trying to tell the mass market is you have to look at price point. That's where a designer's eye toward their global attitude comes in. It allowed me to build in these perceived values. It's that little touch of class that's going to sell those things. We were fighting back by charging $125 with all the whistles and bells. The perceived value was there. That's where the real research and development we do in-house comes in. We play with things until we know they speak to you. We've become aspirational in the way we design furniture and items but using methods that have been seen in other areas of retail. What is the most important element of that item, and how do we get that down to an affordable price?
M&V: What's your take on how consumers will invest in their homes in this disastrous housing market?
Mr. Lowell: We had predicted a year and a half ago that nothing was going to come back in a very big way. We know people are taking another look at their homes, no differently than when people started nesting after Sept. 11. They would walk back into their homes and say, 'Where did we get all this crap?' That prompted the biggest remodeling boom, but the word "nesting" means nothing to you now.
And we're kind of in the midst of that again. In the consumer press, I've been doing a lot of articles on a pay-it-backward concept. Many people thought they were going to upgrade into a new home. Now we're saying: Take a look at the home you're in right now, understand what your lifestyle is, think about what your parents did and throw it out the window. If you have a table sitting in the middle of a room all by itself, get rid of it!
M&V: What prompted your return to TV on the Fine Living Network? How does your new show fit into your long-term strategy at retail?
Mr. Lowell: I wasn't sure I wanted to go back on television after the first program, pulling 24-hour days. I thought I was going to take a break, so I went to Discovery, and we parted very amicably.
But as our television series become a shorter investment of time for me, I realized it was time to get back out with my original message. Personal creativity is built into all of us; it's inherent. It's buried, but it's there. You may not have three-dimensional talent, but you do have enormous creativity, especially as we move to a much more entrepreneurial and spiritual society.
As far as retail goes, we just want to continue to grow, want to let retailers know that we're really there to help them bridge the gap with their consumers. We're saying: Get rid of all this crap. Lower the SKUs and you lower the anxiety. If you coordinate it, you're going to have a better chance of sale at the retail counter. We've done a lot of talking with national retail associations helping them understand who the new retail generation is.